December 21

6 Things Every CEO Should Know About Privacy Policies

Privacy Policies and Practices are like Ying and Yang. Image under license from stock.xchange.
Privacy Policies and Practices are like Ying and Yang. Image under license from stock.xchange.

Writing a privacy policy is a careful balance: Being realistic about what you can perform, protecting and instilling confidence in your customers, facilitating business growth and adaptation, complying with law, and above all, being honest.

Your privacy policy and security practices are the subject of federal, state and international laws, as well as FTC regulation. The FTC regulates unfair and deceptive consumer practices, and has a history of privacy policy enforcement actions. In fact, it is currently hosting a series of “Privacy Roundtable” discussions, focusing on behavioral advertising, social networking, mobile marketing, data aggregation and correlation, data brokering, cloud computing, and other now-common practices.

With increasing scrutiny on privacy policies and practices, here are six things every CEO should know about their company’s privacy policy.

Be Honest

Your mamma was right: Honesty is the best (privacy) policy. Be up front about what you do (or may do in the future) with your customer’s personal information. Many privacy policies make one of three “honesty” mistakes: 1. Over-Promising, 2. Under-Promising, 3. Omission. Each carries liability, so it is better to avoid any of the three.

Don’t over-promise. Your company may be held responsible for the representations in your privacy policy. Look out for phrases like “state-of-the-art,” “everything in our power,” or “our highest priority.” If your company really does use “state-of-the-art” technology to protect privacy, good for you. But you probably don’t, so be honest about it. While you may think that such phrases are just feel-good fluff, the FTC has brought actions against companies who fail to provide the state-of-the-art consumer protections they promised, even though they used otherwise reasonable practices.

Don’t under-promise. FTC guidelines and many state laws require that your company takes reasonable and appropriate measures on a case-by-case basis. It may be tempting to try and disclaim all duties to protect your customers, especially if you’ve had a breach. But this approach has pitfalls. First, it is impossible to disclaim all duties to your customers’ privacy. Second, you may scare away potential customers, or invite scrutiny (as Facebook well knows). Third, FTC actions have indicated that businesses cannot take a “wait-and-see” approach to consumer privacy. Instead, companies have a duty to act reasonably and detect problems before they cause loss, particularly if the they have made privacy promises to their employees or customers.

Tell the whole truth. Another temptation is to remain conveniently silent on a privacy issue you’d rather not talk about. This is also a risky strategy, because state laws (such as California, Texas, and soon-to-be Massachusetts, to name a few) impose specific disclosure requirements. Whether or not required by law, failure to disclose important privacy practices can spark FTC enforcement action as a deceptive consumer practice.

Be Complete & Conspicuous

Aside from potential FTC action, California law requires any company which holds personal information about a Californian to identify the types of information it collects about customers, explain how the consumer may change or update the personal information, and identify an effective date. The law also imposes an affirmative duty to disclose whether information will be disclosed to third parties for marketing purposes. California law also requires that a link to your company’s privacy policy be conspicuous. Most of the time, a link from the home page or in the footer will be sufficient.

A privacy policy is legally compliant when it addresses all of the various legal and regulatory requirements, but it is only complete when it addresses the full range of your unique business practices. For some organizations, that may be broader than you think. For example, a typical University engages in educational, financial, healthcare, network provider, non-profit, and goods and services activities on behalf of their students. That’s why there can be no such thing as a “boilerplate” privacy policy.

Privacy Policy Must Reflect (Changing) Practices

Like Ying and Yang, privacy Policy and Practice are complementary and inseparable. One consistent pattern of FTC actions is that updated information security practices are necessary to protect consumers’ privacy. As FTC guidelines indicate, “Good security is an ongoing process of assessing risks and vulnerabilities… Your business practices and privacy policy must be consistently updated to reflect current best practices and available technology.”

Get it Right the First Time

Even though your privacy policy must adapt to changing business needs, privacy policies cannot be retroactively modified. This issue is important in the following scenario: Suppose that your company decides it wants to sell customer personal information to marketers, but your privacy policy states that personal information “will not be shared with third parties without [customers’] explicit consent.” Changing the policy to allow you to sell personal information may apply prospectively, but new policy provisions will not apply to existing customers, without their consent. This can even apply to a transfer of personal information in a bankruptcy proceeding.

That’s why it’s important to get it right the first time. Your company’s privacy policy must allow you enough wiggle-room to adapt to future conditions, be complete, and still protect your customers. If you need to materially change your policy, make sure that you have the infrastructure to determine which version of your policy applies to which customer. It matters.

If You Say it, Do it

We’re all familiar with the Miranda phrase, “anything you say can and will be used against you …” by the FTC. If you make a representation in your privacy or security policy, you’d better be able to live up to it. FTC enforcement actions demonstrate that website owners must adhere to any statements of privacy or security, whether the statement is made online or offline.

Each representation about privacy or security is treated as a “privacy promise.” Feel-good marketing fluff does not belong in a privacy policy, because even “fluff” can create duties or liability, even if the duty is not required by law. Explicit security-related promises (such as a promise to use “state-of-the-art technology”) requires that the company take affirmative and ongoing steps to ensure that sufficient security is provided.

For example, in 2004 Gateway Learning Corp found itself the target of an FTC Deceptive Practice enforcement action for renting its customer list to marketers, even though their privacy policy said they wouldn’t. In recent years the FTC has taken similar action against Eli Lilly & Co., Microsoft, Guess, Inc., Tower Records, and Petco.com to name a few.

If your privacy policy says it, then do it.

It’s Your Business

As a soon-to-be attorney, I can say * that you should have a lawyer review your privacy policy. Lawyers help the privacy policy comply with legal and regulatory requirements, but it’s your responsibility to make sure that the policy is complete. In fact, I would go so far as to say that 30% of a privacy policy is compliance, and the other 70% is completeness.

If those numbers are any indication, they mean that your privacy policy should have 70% of its input from the Customer Service Department, the Accounting Department, Sales, Marketing, and perhaps even R&D. Without their feedback it will be impossible to document your important privacy practices and create a complete privacy policy. Privacy policies are not legalese and magic words. They are a blueprint of vital business processes. There is one sure way to get in trouble: Relegate your privacy policy to the legal department, and fail to get cross-departmental participation in its drafting. Banishing your privacy policy just to the lawyers may get you in trouble because the end result may be compliant, but incomplete And ironically, an incomplete privacy policy is a non-compliant policy.

Take Charge

As a CEO, COO, or Managing Director, you should do three things:

  1. First, read your privacy and security policy. If it confuses you, it will confuse your customers. If it confuses your customers, it might be interpreted as deceptive by the FTC.
  2. Second, make sure you can live up to your privacy policy. Watch out for buzzwords like “state-of-the-art,” “everything within our power,” “always,” and “never.” Make sure that you haven’t painted yourself, your customers, or your employees into a corner.
  3. Third, update your privacy policy to reflect your business practices, or update your business practices to match your policy. Being honest and complete about your business practices is tough work, but will pay dividends long-term.

* No bias, and a healthy dose of sarcasm. In this case the author wishes to think of his opinion on the lawyers as an expert opinion rather than a biased one. In the author’s experience, there is occasionally little difference between “expert” and “biased” opinions.


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